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Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and the British colonization of Singapore among Penang, Melaka and Bencoolen

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The arrival of the British in Penang and Francis Light’s free trade strategy

Around the end of the Eighteenth century the British East India Company, in order to meet the need of an intermediate logistic base for its merchants ships that followed the Indo-chinese routs, began establishing the early diplomatic relations with Malaysian authorities and, thanks to official Francis Light‘s cunning, who was a former cadet of the Royal Navy, in 1786 it managed to obtain by Abdullah1 – at that time the Sultan of Kedah – the permission for the establishment of the long-wished commercial outpost in that almost uninhabited Island named Penang in the Strait of Melaka2.

In contrast to the monopolistic colonial policy pursued during the preceding centuries both by the Portuguese before and the Dutch, Francis Light adopted the so called free trade strategy, which allowed the Island in question to pass, in just two decades, from 1,800 to 10,000 inhabitants, growing in prosperity and becoming the most sought-after destination by all the merchants of that age.

Chinese immigrants, secret brotherhoods and the capillary control of commercial routs

Lanterne Cinesi

During the period of the British domination all Chinese immigrants dwelling in Penang started regulating their activities by developing some secret self-government organs just like the dreadful Kong Hok Palace.

It was a sort of temple having the double function of assembly room for Chinese communities and, at the same time, it was also a pitiless court headed by a secret sworn brotherood.

The influence exerted by these brotheroods on the whole insular territory, both on the control of maritime and land based trade had many negative repercussions on the exercise of power by British rulers, infecting the system not only in Penang but also in all the other colonies of Southeast Asia (includingthe the future commercial outpost in Singapore).

Despite the incessant pressure of the local population, who considered these Chinese religious practices immoral and dangerous for the public order, the British authorities realized too late that, indeed, behind all these apparently innoquous organisms, there was hidden an uncompromising and ruthless authoritarian structure, which pursued the aim of giving rise to a sort of parallel empire within the empre itself3.

Meanwhile in homeland the desire to extend the British over the whole Malaysian Peninsula was becoming stronger and stronger, in 1785 the Netherlands were invided by Napoleon’s army. The British colonial authorities in Malaysia in order to avoid that all Dutch colonial possessions fell in the hands of the French forces, took possession of the wealthy Island of Java and the strategic city port of Melaka, which was given back to the Dutch only after Napoleon’s capitulation in 1818, and not before that the walls of the fortress A Famosa were destroyed.

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Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and his hostility toward the eternal Dutch rivals

The restitution of all those Dutch colonies, which had fallen under British control was not a highly appreciated practice by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who at that time was the Lieutenant Governor of Java. The farsighted Governor Raffles in fact, having had the possibility to evaluate the growing commercial opportunities offered by the Southern Malaysian Peninsula, in order to keep the possession of those territories, he never ceased to exert a very strong pressure on the most important leaders of the British East India Company, relaying on the strategic relevance of those territories, in particular for what concerned the control and supervision of all those merchant ships crossing the Strait of Melaka4.

Just around the figure of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles will rotate all those key events that will trigger on Singapore islet an extraordinary transformation process. In fact, the unknown island will soon end to host that small and insignificant fishing village to become the most important trading port in the Whole Southeast Asia in the following centuries.

The career of Raffles within the Company

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles began working for the British East India Company at the age of fourteen in its London’s headquarter. Ten years later Raffles was sent to Penang, where he had the possibility to learn the local Language. He was so skilled and reliable that in 1811 he was entrusted the direct government of Java5.

In 1817, after the pubblication of his famous book History of Java in London, Raffles obtained the knight investiture. It was a ssort of special aknowledgment for the extraordinary diplomatic skills he demonstrated in the course of his service. Later Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was sent to Bencoolen, an exotic city port devoted to the trade of pepper located on the west coast of toda’s Island of Sumatra. By that time the boundless Island of Sumatra was wholly under the Dutch control(6).

In 1818 Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles managed to obtain by the general governor of India, Lord Hasting, a sort of tacit approval. This permission allowed Raffles to put into effect – on condition that he would have avoided anykind of trouble with the Dutch – his exploratory expedition, whose main purpose was the mopping of Melaka’s Straits in search of new alternative routes and territories suitable to accomodate, in a not too distant future, the implementation of the new avant-garde trading outpost of the British East India Company7.

Behind this complex maneuver were hidden indeed all the British expansionist aims; at the beginning stage the British East India Company leaders wanted to break into the Dutch influenced areas with the purpose to arrive, at a later stage, through the establishment of the free port of Singapore, to deliver the coup de grace right in the heart of all  Dutch East India Company trades, determining in this way the inexorable capitulation process of the Dutch in Southeast Asia.

Lieutenant Raffles and his visionary expedition toward the discovery of Singapore

Leaving from the colonial outpost of PenangLieutenant Raffles went further into Melaka‘s Strait and some days later he reached the shores of Singapore. The Landing took place on January the 29th, 1819 in today’s North Boat Quay, historical pier of Singapore Island located on the Southern pier of Singapore river8; however in the book Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1835), written by Lady Sophia Raffles (second wife of the British lieutenant), It is written that Sir Stamford Raffles landed on the Island of Singapore in the ten following days after his departure from Penang, exactly on February the 29th, 1819, day on which, after treading Singapore‘s ground, he himself rose the British Ffag over the island9.

In order to acquire an organic understanding about all the motivations that led Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles toward the choice of Singapore Island as the only strategic key location capable of hosting the new British avant-garde trading outpost, we cannot avoid to focus our attention on some lines related to certain letters written by the British lieutenant Raffles with his own hands and then reported in the above mentioned book by his wife Lady Sophia Raffles.

The letter of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles to the cartographer Marsden

In a letter dated June the 31st, 1819 and addressed to the cartographer and historian Mr. Marsden, as well as author of The History of Sumatra, Sir Stamford Raffles from Singapore, for explaining the reasons of his choice, wrote:

“Singapore is every thing we could desire, it will soon rise into importance; and with this single station I would undertake to counteract all the plans of Mynheer10; it breaks the spell; and they are no longer the exclusive sovreigns of the Eastern Seas. […] This place possesses an excellent harbour, and every thing that can be desired for a British port in the island of St. John’s, which forms the south western point of the harbour. We have commanded an intercourse with all the ships passing through the Straits of Singapore. We are within a week’s sail of China, close to Siam and in the very seat of the Malayan Empire. This, therefore, will probably be my last attempt. If I am deserted now, I must fain return to Bencoolen, and become philosopher.” (11).

The situation of Singapore at the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

At the time of the landing, to the eyes of Sir Stamford Raffles and his entourage, Singapore was like a tormented theatre on which came to life a fierce family dispute scaturita because of the succession to the throne of Johor – after the death of Sultan Mahmud Sahah III – harshly disputed by Tengku Abdul Rahman (the Sultan’s youngest son), who exerted the control of the insular territory under the influences of the Dutch and theBugis and Tengku Hussein (the Sultan’s eldest son), who was sent in a temporary exile to Riau.

At the same time on Singapore Island, there was also a small Malaysian settlement headed by the Temenggong12. He was a sort of regent governor who had remained loyal to Tengku Hussein, with whom Sir Stamford Raffles, on January the 30th, 1819, signed a preliminary agreement that allowed him to install the first British colonial outpost on Singapore island13.

By taking advantage of the frammentary political situation in which the Island of Singapore was by that time and strengthened by the military support provided by the Temenggong, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles took the opportunity to arrange the return of the exiled Tengku Hussain on the Island. The lieutenant in fact wished to recognize him as the sole legitimate puppet ruler of the whole

Raffles and the first treaty with the new Sultan of Johor Tengku Hussein

On February the 6th, 1819 Tengku Hussein was placed on Singapore‘s throne as the new unquestioned Sultan of Johor. On the same day the leader Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles signed a preliminary with the new puppet Sultan.

Thanks to this treaty, the British obtained the permission for the installation of their trading stations on the island, upon payment of an annual tribute which amount consisted of 5.000 Spanish dollars to the new Sultan of Johor and 3.000 Spanish dollars to the temenggong15.

The return of Raffles to Bencoolen and the regency of Major William Farquhar

The following day Sir Stamford Raffles sealed to Bencoolen, leaving the regency of Singapore to Major William Farquhar, who was furthermore appointed as First President e Commandant of the new British outpost.

At least in theory, the exert of power by Major  William Farquhar should have remained under the directives of the general governor of India – who was based in Calcutta – and Sir Stamford Raffles – who at that time was Governor of Bencoolen. In practice, the intervention degree by the higher government bodies on Singapore‘s administrative issues was limited, mainly because of the considerable distance that separated the new outpost both from Calcutta and Bencoolen.

Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles

Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (1781-1826), scholar of zoology, Governor of Java, as well as founding father of the modern city-state of Singapore, in a portrait of 181716.

Major Farquhar took then advantage of this situation and decided to exert the obtained power in a completely autonomous way. The new regent put both the civil and military power under his contol, so as to directly manage the defence of the new trading outpost. The title of first resident allowed him to play the role of Chief Magistrate (first judge of the supreme court), placing him in a ideal position for exerting both the judicial power and regulating at the same time the civil issues of Singapore Island17.

In 1823, deeply disappointed by Farquhar‘s behaviour, Sir Stamford Raffles decided to ask him the restitution of his colonel rank and remove him from the status of First Resident, entrusting the regency of the outpost to Dr. John Crawford, who mantained this mandate till 182618.

Major-General William Farquhar

Major-General William Farquhar (1770-1839), First Resident and Commandant  of Singapore outpost since 1819 to 182319.

The unespected conquest of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles had caused considerable tensions between the governments of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The Treaty of London, signed by the two colonial powers on March the 17th, 1824, diplomatically solved the dispute and delineated the respective spheres of infulence; the whole Singapore Island along with the Dutch colony of Melaka finally and officially passed under the control of the British Crown while the Netherlands obtained the withdrawal of their rivals from the outpost of Bencoolen (Southern Sumatra) as well as the recognition of  their possession of Belitung Island (oriental cost of Sumatra)20.

The implementation of Straits Settlements, the economic boom and the Treaty of Johor

With the purpose to obtain an official recognition for the possession of Singapore Island, also by the local aristocracy represented by the Sulatn of Johor and the regent Temenggong, the British officer Crawford21, on August the 2nd of the same year, signed with these latter the so called Treaty of Johor. At the second article the treaty the parties agreed that:

“Their Highnesses the Sultan Hussain Mohamed Shah and Datu Temenggong Abdul Rahman Sri Maharajah hereby cede in full sovereignty and property to the Honourable the English East India Company, their heirs and successors forever, the island of Singapore, situated on the Straits of Malacca, together with the adjacent seas, straits and islets to the extent of ten geographical miles from the coast of the said main island of Singapore.” (22).

In 1826 the administrations of Singapore, Melaka e Penang were placed under the administrative control of a federation called Straits Settlements, placed in turn under the chairmanship of the First Governor Robert Fullerton23 located in Penang. During this period the three seaports were crossed by an impetuous process of economic and commercial development. In these years was also recorded an impressive population gowth due to massive immigration waves. 

It is esteemed that the number of Chinese immigrants in the only Singapore Island shifted from 10.000 people in 1824 to 18.000 individuals in 1832. Just in those years Singapore replaced Penang becoming the undisputed capital of the Straits Settlements24. After the dissolution of the British East India Company, which took place in 1867, the Straits Settlements were placed under the jurisdiction of the Colonial Office London25.

Major-General Sir. Herry St. George Ord - Sir Robert Fullerton

                                         Fig. 1                                                                 Fig. 2

The figure number 1 shows Major-General Sir. Herry St. George Ord (1819-1885) during his mandate as First Governor of the Straits Settlements (1867-1873) in Singapore in a picture taken by photographer Gustave Richard Lambert26. In the fifure number 2 we can see Sir Robert Fullerton (1773-1831), Governor and Treasurer of the Presidency of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Singapore and Melaka (1826-1890) during his mandate in Penang27.

The administration of Singapore and the Straits Settlements General Sir Harry St. George Ord, who was sent to Singapore with the title of First Governor of the Straits Settlements28. Under the direct administration by the British Crown, the colony of Singapore was overwhelmed by a relentless and immediate process of economic and commercial development, triggered in turn by the opening of Suez Canal in 186929. If until the first half of the 40s of XIX Century the heart of maritime trades of Singapore Island remained Collyer Quay (historical pier of the colony near Singapore river), in 1879, in order to meet the logistical needs of the various trading companies present in the area, the administration decided to complete the construction of a new port better known as New Harbour (today’s Keppel Harbour).

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As it was located on the Southern cost of Singapore Island and equipped with three mooring quays on the high seas, it was perfect for the anchoring of high tonnage merchant ships coming from Europe, which frequently arrived to Singapore for purchasing tin, natural rubber and spices30.

Further readings and recommended books

2Bindloss Joe, Brash Celeste, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka & Penang, Lonely Planet Country & Regional Guides, Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, Victoria, 2008, Australia.

3De Bernardi Elizabeth Jean, Penang: rites of belonging in a Malaysian Chinese community, NUS Press, National University of Singapore, Singapore, 2009, Republic of Singapore.

4Bindloss Joe, Brash Celeste, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka & Penang, Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, 2008, op. cit.

5Dana Léo Paul, Entrepreneurship in Pacific Asia: Past, Present & Future, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., Singapore, 1999, Republic of Singapore.

6Hack A. Karl in Sonnenburg M. Penny, Page Eugene Melvin, Colonialism: an international, social, cultural, and political encyclopedia, Melvin E. Page Editor, ABC-CLIO, 2003, Santa Barbara, California, United States of America.

8Swee-Hock Saw, The Population of Singapore, second edition, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, first edition 1999, second edition 2007, Republic of Singapore.

10http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Mynheer. Mynheer: dall’olandese mijnheer (mio signore) la cui etimologia deriva dall’unione di mijn (mio) e di heer (signore). Può indicare anche informalmente un comune uomo adulto di nazionalità olandese.

11Lady Sophia (Hull) Raffles, Memories of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Particularly in the Government of Java, 1811-1816, Bencoolen and its Dependencies, 1817-1824; with Details of the Commerce and Resourses of the Eastern Archipelago and Selections from his Correspondence, vol. II, Library of Princeton University, printed by William Cloves and sons, London, 1835, United Kingdom, op. cit., p. 13, trad.: «Singapore è tutto ciò che potremmo desiderare, crescerà presto in importanza; e con questa unica base io mi impegnerei a contrastare tutti i piani del mynheer; Singapore rompe l’incantesimo, ed essi non saranno più gli unici sovrani dei mari dell’est. [] Questo luogo possiede un eccellente rifugio, e tutto ciò che si possa desiderare per un porto britannico nell’isola di St. John, la quale costituisce l’estremità sud-occidentale del rifugio. Abbiamo stabilito un contatto con tutte le navi passanti per lo stretto di Singapore. Siamo ad una settimana di vela dalla Cina, vicini al Siam e nel cuore dell’impero Malayan. Questo, quindi, sarà il mio ultimo tentativo. Se non verrò preso in considerazione, farò volentieri ritorno a Bencoolen e diventerò un filosofo.».

12Parker M. Philip, Monarchs: Webster’s Quotations, Facts and Phrases, ICON Group Internatonal, San Diego, California, 2008, United States of America. Il termine temenggung o temenggong indica un antico titolo nobiliare malese che veniva di solito conferito al comandante della pubblica sicurezza. Il temenggong era oltretutto responsabile della sicurezza del monarca e dell’esercito.

13Tan Y. L. Kevin, The Singapore Legal System, second edition, Singapore University Press, NUS Publishing, Singapore, first edition 1989, second edition 1999, reprint 2003, Republic of Singapore.

14http://www.asiaexplorers.com/singapore/history-of-singapore.htm

15Leasor James, Singapore the Battle that Changed the World: the enthralling story of the rise and fall of a magical city, House of Stratus, Status Books Ltd., 2001, Kelly Bray, Cornwall, United Kingdom.

16http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw05193/Sir-Thomas-Stamford-Bingley-Raffles, dipinto in olio su tela realizzato dal pittore irlandese George Francis Joseph (1764-1846) in occasione del ritorno di Sir. Stamford Raffles in Inghilterra nel 1817. La raffigurazione proprietà di W. C. Raffles Flint, nipote del governatore, venne da quest’ultimo donata alla National Protrait Gallery di Londra nel 1859.

17Cheong Mun Yong, Rao V. V. Bhanoji, Singapore-India Relations: a primer, Singapore University Press Ltd., Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore, 1995, Republic of Singapore.

18Bowman Stewart John, Columbia chronologies of Asian history and culture, Columbia University Press, Chichester, West Sussex, New York, 2000, United States of America.

20Leng Yong Lee, Southeast Asia: essays in political geography, Singapore University Press, Kent Ridge, Singapore, 1982, Republic of Singapore.

21Trocky A. Carl, Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, Abingdon, 2006, United Kingdom.

22Johnston M. Douglas, Valencia J. Mark, Pacific Ocean boundary problems: status and solutions, Publications on Ocean Development, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht, 1991, The Netherlands, p. 156, trad.: «Le loro altezze il sultano Hussain Mohamed Shah e Datu Temenggong Abdul Rahman Sri Maharajah con il presente cedono in piena sovranità e proprietà all’onorevole Compagnia Inglese delle Indie Orientali, i loro eredi e successori permanentemente, l’isola di Singapore, situata sullo stretto di Melacca, assieme ai mari adiacenti, stretti ed isolotti fino all’estensione di dieci miglia geografici dalla costa della detta principale isola di Singapore.».

23Lam Peng Er, Tan Y. L. Kevin, Managing political change in Singapore: the elected presidency, Routledge, London, 1997, United Kingdom.

24Andaya Watson Barbara, Andaya Y. Leonard, A History of Malaysia, Macmillan Asian Histories Series, Macmillan Press Ltd, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London, 1982, United Kingdom.

25Suryadinata Leo, Nationalism and globalization: East and West, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2000, Republic of Singapore.

28Bowman Stewart John, Columbia chronologies of Asian history and culture, Columbia University Press, New York, 2000, op. cit.

29Genzberger Christine, Singapore business: the portable encyclopedia for doing business with Singapore, World Trade Press, San Rafael, California, 1994, United States of America.

30Goh Chuan Kim, Cleary Mark, Environment and development in the Straits of Malacca, Routledge Studies in Development and Society, Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2005, United Kingdom.

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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